Five Tips to Transform Your Story Into a Masterpiece

how to write a great story

Writing a story can seem like an insurmountable feat, more so if you wish to create a masterpiece that would leave your readers feverishly turning pages and wanting more out of your book and the people in it. Depending on how familiar you are with the process, the time you intend to spend on research and outlines, and various other factors, it could take anywhere between weeks to years to get your story just right. Then again, every book is different, and there’s no one size fits all formula or ultimate cheat sheet that can help you craft the perfect tale! 

Some writers like to plan out all the moving parts and intricacies before piecing them together, while others play it by ear and go with the flow. Even the time aspect can vary from one author to another, in that some novelists spend days before they even start writing the first draft, whereas others get right into it. It’s no surprise that Charles Dickens could write A Christmas Carol in six weeks, whereas J.R.R. Tolkien is known to have spent close to a whopping 17 years to finish writing The Lord of The Rings! The important thing to keep in mind is understanding your story’s essence and conveying it to your readers in the best way possible. In short, how you can make a good story great

And we’re here to help you do exactly that.

Before we start sharing some secrets on exceptional storytelling, or rather story-writing, let’s run through a few fundamental elements that make up a story.

Every story has the following principal components:

  1. Setting: It represents the physical location and the period during which your account takes place, often considering social and cultural conditions in which the characters exist.
  2. Theme: The central problem statement, idea, or argument fuelling the entire story.
  3. Character: The actors or personas in the story
  4. Plot: The overarching narrative arc comprising the events that make up the story.
  5. Conflict: One or more key challenges or problems around which the plot is based. Without conflict, the story and its characters will have no purpose or trajectory.
  6. Resolution: Since your story has a conflict, it’s quite natural to have a resolution explaining everything we witnessed in the book. It is the point at which your plot lines intersect, and your story culminates.
  7. Point-of-View: Who is telling the story is almost as important as the story itself. You could narrate the account from a first-person (I), second-person (You), or third-person (He/She/It) POV. You could also have multiple characters narrating it or have one all-knowing narrator.
  8. Dialogue: It is the verbal communication between characters, in keeping with the setting, theme, and subject area of the story. Good dialogue draws the reader into an imaginary world and can help immortalise characters.

Some writers also consider symbolism and morals as essential parts, but the ones above are the most important and can be applied to works spanning all genres and target age-groups. 

Once you’ve figured out the elements for your book, the next step is to arrange them into a story structure.

Stories typically take patterns that readers are familiar with, basically the anticipated ups and downs. For instance, the story setting is usually relatively calm and uneventful until you have a turn of events or a dramatic change caused by an inciting incident, leading to conflicts, character journeys, peak tension and eventually a climax following which the story comes to a logical conclusion. This general architecture is called the story structure, which comes in two common forms: the Three Act and the Five Act. While the former was conceptualised by Aristotle and assumes that every story has a beginning, middle and an end, the latter gained fame thanks to German novelist Gustav Freytag whose Freytag’s Pyramid continues to be revered by some as a universal plot structure. His version of the dramatic structure breaks every story down into five acts, namely exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. When visualised, these stages take the shape of a triangle or a pyramid, hence the name. In recent times, writers have also devised a Seven-Point story structure which is particularly helpful in mapping out all the possible milestones that a book could include to gain maximum readership. It starts with an initial hook, then uses a catalyst to get to a big event and a midpoint. The remaining three points in the seven-point system are the crisis, climax and resolution or realisation, which are similar to what we see in the Three Act and Five Act structures.

Both focus on some chief elements like the peaks and plateaus defined by rising and falling action, the midpoint in the story, which is the moment of maximum escalation and peak tension, and a climax or resolution where plots and subplots are resolved, and the story is wrapped up. How these are lined up or sketched out differentiates one template from the other. For instance, the Fichtean Curve also operates on three principal components: rising action, climax, and falling action, but it directly drops one or more central characters into the thick of it. That’s not nearly the same as the original Three Act! In a way, the Five Act and all other variants of these structures stem from the Three Act’s straightforward, time-tested format and merely include some additional hops.  

If you’re a first-time novelist, it’s perfectly acceptable to be overwhelmed by all these literary constructs and formats, so refrain from experimenting too much with structures or breaking your head on figuring out what would work best for your book. To keep things simple at the start of the writing journey, we recommend adopting the Three Act approach and building your narrative around that.  

Now, at some point during your writing journey, most likely right at the start, you may have realised that you can’t write a story without a plot. But aren’t they the same thing? Not quite. While they’re both essential to writing a good book, especially fiction ones, the story is the sequence of all events strung together, whereas the plot is the cause-effect relationship between individual scenes or situations. The classic example by E. M. Forster in his collected lectures, Aspects of the Novel, still explains this difference in the best manner:

“‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.”

With that, let’s discover some nifty hacks that can turn your book into a bestseller!

1. Pay attention to the setting: The background of your story can play a pivotal role in helping you build the book universe and provide some context on elements like scenes, dialogue, cultures, etc. The setting doesn’t just mean location or time frame but also contributes to your story’s course and other norms, behavioural trends, and restrictions that may have been prevalent at the time. There are three major components to setting: 

  • Place: Geographical location, region or a description like “snow-clad mountains” or “idyllic cottage by the river” where the story takes place.
  • Time: Historical time frame, period or era in which the story is set.
  • Social environment: Societal constructs or conditions that would dictate the tone, behaviour, actions, and overall atmosphere of the book.

Having a clear picture of the setting can make it easier for you to create characters, scenes and dialogue. Charles Dickens was a master at crafting mood-inspired settings that painted a vivid picture of the time in which his books were set. His impression of 19th Century London is almost a character in itself in novels such as Great Expectations (1861) and Oliver Twist (1838).

2. Plotting trick: Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats has doled out a useful piece of advice on exploring the plotting process using a simple template:

Once upon a time, there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally, ___.

Do some freewriting and jot down all possible ends you can think of for the first sentence. Find one that you like the best, and then use that to get cracking on the second one. And so on! You could even do one set of sentences for the plot, another for the characters in that plot, and then put them all together. The best part is, you can keep repeating “Because of that, ____” for as long as necessary to get to “Until finally ____.” However, ensure that you fill these spaces with conflicts and inciting incidents, otherwise, your story will get monotonous.

3. Pulling at the “So what” thread: Have you ever been puzzled or left feeling like you’ve completely missed the point of something you’ve read? If you’re asking the question “so what” as a reader, it’s probably because the writer didn’t! You mustn’t introduce some life-changing event and then not uncover its potential consequences. Your audience should never have to guess what message you want to give them. So, keep asking questions like “So What”, “Now What”, “What If” to produce a tight story that doesn’t leave its readers baffled. 

4. Show don’t tell: When something interesting happens in your story that changes your character’s fate, don’t merely narrate it, actually play out the scene! That’s what makes your book palpable and gets readers to feel the emotions portrayed in the story.

Also Read: 13 Best Online Writing Tools

5. Make your story relatable with natural dialogue: Great dialogue can transform your characters and make them seem just like real people. It not only makes everything seem more believable but gives a strong, distinct voice to each character, distinguishing them from the rest. To do justice to this, understand who your character is, what influences them, what period they existed in, and how people spoke or may speak during that time. Besides character traits and personalities, natural conversation and sharp dialogue are what make readers vouch for your characters. 

Another critical ingredient to concocting a powerful story is editing your work. Once you’re done drafting the entire manuscript, put it aside for a while and approach it with a refreshed pair of eyes. Doing that can help you scrutinise your work from an editorial perspective and not as the author of the book! Before you go on to publish it, do get an expert pair of eyes to go over your work and refine it. Suppose you’re choosing to self-publish with an online writing platform such as Pencil. In that case, you could always seek editorial support from a developmental editor who can evaluate your story to make sure it has strong characters, believable plot points, powerful tension, and exciting themes. Alternatively, you could work with a structural editor who can advise you on what kind of structures might best suit the type of story you’re telling. 

In conclusion, no matter what you’re writing, getting the fundamentals right and enhancing your story with one or more of these tips is a sure shot way to make your story more compelling!

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